UnCivilization: Urban Geopolitics In A Time Of Chaos (Book Review)

There are many books out there on where the world is heading, but UnCivilization: Urban Geopolitics In A Time Of Chaos, is surely one of the more thought-provoking ones. The author, Gregory Copley, is President of the US-based International Strategic Studies Association, and has spent more than four decades analysing global trends and intelligence.

Urbanisation Leading To Increasingly Unbalanced Development

Arguably the most important theme of the book is how urbanisation trends worldwide are changing political realities in nation-states to the extent that their leaders are now overwhelmingly being driven by urban interests. This in turn is leading to highly uneven national development. In other words, the world is increasingly becoming dominated by de facto city-states – a phenomenon whose political, social, economic and strategic manifestations the author describes as ‘urban geopolitics’. From my own experience in writing about emerging markets, it is very evident that cities (especially the capital) in many countries are becoming globalised islands of modernity and prosperity while rural areas are being left behind. China, India, and Brazil spring to mind, but they are far from being alone.

When peripheral regions with vast natural resources are exploited by urban interests which do not share this wealth with its place of extraction, this can lead to resentment against the capital, and even armed rebellion. The energy-rich Niger Delta states are one such example, with the revenues being spent outside the region. Of course, this phenomenon does not affect just emerging nations. The author cites a similar problem in Western Australia, from where he hails. As regards unbalanced national development, I would also argue that the UK is excessively dominated by Greater London, where political, economic, financial, cultural, and media power is overwhelmingly concentrated. The same can be said of Seoul, in South Korea, and many other big cities.

Moving Towards A Global ‘Interregnum’

Another key theme of the book is that the world is moving to an interregnum between superpowers, owing to the relative decline of the US, and the perceived isolationism of President Barack Obama. According to the author, “no nation-state, even by the start of the second decade of the 21st century, has the economic strength, the will, or the resources to sustain the kind of constant military capability… [that the West maintained] through a half-century or so of the Cold War…” He adds that even China, which seems so dynamic, faces enormous hurdles to its growth and stability, and would lack the global reach of a true superpower for at least a further couple of decades. This essentially chimes with BMI‘s own view that while the US will remain the world’s sole superpower for the foreseeable future, it will be the strongest of the weak rather than the strongest of the strong. Meanwhile, we do not see China becoming a global superpower to the extent that the US is today.  

At the same time, Copley warns against linearist thinking, i.e., assuming that the trends of today will be sustained tomorrow. Neither the decline of the West nor the rise of China is guaranteed. On that note, he asserts that no state can be or remain a major power unless it produces a net surplus in foodstuffs. This, of course, takes us back to the issue of increasingly unbalanced national development. For some years now, BMI has noted that China’s urbanisation has led to a substantial loss of agricultural land, which has been commandeered for urban and industrial development, resulting in greater need for imported food, not to mention considerable pollution – topics we discuss in our recently published special report.

In terms of geopolitical patterns, the author sees the rise of China and the revival of Russia as strengthening the Eurasian ‘heartland’ in relation to maritime powers such as the US, UK, and Australia. European states will thus become more compelled to look east, rather than across the Atlantic, while the US will increasingly look towards the Pacific. Thus, the fate of the North Atlantic alliance is in question.

Unsurprisingly, as a result of the changes currently taking place on a geopolitical and national level, the world looks set to become considerably more chaotic. However, the author argues that chaos is by no means a bad thing, and that in many cases it will break open stagnant frameworks which have been impeding progress.

While the changes taking place could lead to more terrorism, as traditional societies become threatened by competition from urban societies, the author argues that we have moved beyond the ‘age of terrorism’. He does not mean that terrorism has ended. Rather, we are no longer in an age in which politics and conflict are defined by terrorism.

Democracy Too Focused On Short-Term Goals

The author also criticises the current state of Western democracy, whose elected leaders are largely motivated by short-term goals, i.e. avoiding making unpopular decisions that may be beneficial for the long term, but are unpalatable to electorates in the near term. In that respect, he sees China and Russia as better placed to undertake long-term measures, although I would argue that even in those countries political leaders must be careful, given that the Communist Party of China has no democratic mandate and derives its legitimacy from delivering rapid economic growth, and given that President Vladimir Putin has faced substantial public protests in recent times. It is this reviewer’s opinion that one of the biggest uncertainties China faces is whether it can manage a peaceful transition to a democratic government. Meanwhile, despite Putin having enormous political power and great personal popularity, he has been unable to diversify the Russian economy away from the oil and gas industry. Still, it is hard to dispute that many if not most of today’s leaders often seem focused on short-term goals.

Modern World’s Growing Vulnerability To Cyber Warfare

The book also addresses cyber warfare risks, noting that most modern urban societies have become so overwhelmingly dependent on continuous supplies of electricity that they are now extremely vulnerable to paralysis following a major cyber attack. In that respect, the Japanese government’s response to the March 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor triple disaster can be viewed as a case study of how a major industrialised nation copes with a cyber attack. (Although the Tohoku disaster was not cyber-induced, the disruption effects were similar to those anticipated after a cyber attack.) Consequently, it will become increasingly important for governments and companies to develop mobile electrical power generation and water purification systems and solar-powered ‘smart’ batteries, which in turn will require advancements in battery technologies.

Copley also warns that with increasing amounts of information being stored in the digital realm, knowledge is vulnerable to being wiped out not just by a cyber attack, but also from more mundane things like incompatibility problems resulting from changes from one storage and retrieval system to another. Therefore, a paperless world could become a memory-less world, he asserts.

My only criticism of the book is that due to the breadth of the topics covered, it is often short on specifics. Nevertheless, it is the book’s ideas which are the most compelling.  

Overall, UnCivilization brings together urbanisation, political and social transformation, national development, geopolitics, and cyber warfare, providing a highly thought-provoking and readable guide to where the world may be heading. Since many of the chapters were originally written as essays, they are also concise, making them extremely useful to dip into every now and again.

UnCivilization by Gregory Copley was published by the International Strategic Studies Association in 2012. ISBN 978-1-892998-18-7.